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September 7, 2012 » 4:31 pm

The Delightful Absurdity of Wikipedia

I was browsing my RSS feed today, and came across this open letter to Wikipedians by author, Philip Roth, published in The New Yorker, about the Wikipedia entry for his book, The Human Stain.

Here was the controversy, in brief:

  1. The Wikipedia page suggested that the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”
  2. Roth noted that this was incorrect. He would know…
  3. … except that, according to Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy, it’s not clear that he would. One could argue that the administrators who interacted with Roth interpreted the policy too narrowly, or that the policy itself is too narrow. Regardless, as ridiculous as it may seem, a secondary source that supports Roth’s claim is a more “definitive” source.
  4. And so, Roth created that secondary source by publishing his letter in The New Yorker.

Problem solved. Here’s what the Wikipedia article says now (and this may change by the time you read this):

Roth wrote in 2012 that the book was inspired “by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.”[4]

The footnote cites the letter in The New Yorker. The Wikipedia article also notes:

Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he did not have a secondary source for his correction. Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic.[5][6][7] Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until “months and months after” starting to write the novel.[8]

Was it absurd that Roth had to go through such lengths to correct this mistake in Wikipedia? Perhaps. I definitely empathize with Roth and many others like him who have to undergo similarly frustrating ordeals, and I truly hope a better approach for handling these things evolves one day.

That said, I think the end result was delightful. Possibly delightfully absurd, but definitely delightful.

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2 Responses to “The Delightful Absurdity of Wikipedia”

  1. Wouldn't a simple solution be for live subjects of wiki pages to be given a page to make statements about themselves, and then reference those pages? That way, one doesn't have to have access to the NY Times to correct the facts about you that only you know….

  2. 1. How would you verify those live subjects were who they said they were, Mr. Digital Identity? 😛

    2. The bigger issue is that it really isn't enough to let live subjects say whatever they want about themselves. Simple example: Politicians.

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